While November is often associated with elections at the CAIR-OK Government Affairs department, it is also commemorated as Native American Heritage Month. Oklahoma has the 3rd highest population of Native Americans in the United States, with 39 different federally recognized tribes represented and over 3 million acres of land (about half of the state) belonging to the tribes. Even the name Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw words “okla homma” meaning red people.
However, having half the state land as Native American reservation hardly represents the land that used to stretch across the entire nation for more than 10,000 years, before the White House or the United States was thought of. The invasion of Europeans that began in 1492 eventually killed over 90% of Native Americans through smallpox, measles, other viruses, and violence. The tumultuous and deadly history of settlers coming to the United States often culminates with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 signed by Andrew Jackson that forced Native American tribes to relocate to lands West of the Mississippi. Between Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, tens of thousands of Native Americans were forced from their lands by federal troops. Thousands died along the way on the torturous journey. It is estimated that of the Cherokee people alone, one-fifth of the population perished on the Trail of Tears.
There are many accounts of mass murder, racism, and cultural erasure of Indigenous peoples throughout our nation’s history. Canada and the US share a dark legacy of assimilation policies that forced Indigenous children into boarding schools where children were beaten for speaking Indigenous languages, in addition to cases of extreme malnutrition, violence, and sexual abuse. The recent discovery of mass graves in Canada and estimations of thousands of dead children, has spurred the US to research its own actions in these areas. Oklahoma itself was home to more of these “boarding schools” than any other state, hosting at least 79 between 1816 and 1969.
Violence against Indigenous peoples has gone unaddressed for far too long. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the First Native American to hold the seat, is a key force behind the investigations into the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW). A 2016 study found that more than 84.3% of Native American and Alaskan Indian women have experienced violence in their lifetime, with over 50% being sexual violence. The National Crime Information Center identified murder as the third leading cause of death for Native women. In the past year, she has also established a Missing and Murdered Unit in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. There are currently over 1,500 registered missing Native American and Native Alaskan people.
With under 7 million people nationwide, this is a demographic that is often left on the fringes of discussion and representation in election season. Native Americans have frequently been side-lined, only gaining the right to vote in all 50 states in 1962, all while being the original inhabitants of this land. Governments have continually failed Native nations and people, and the impacts are evident through severe health, economic and structural inequalities. COVID-19 also disproportionately impacted Native communities severely, and this has shown to be one of many causes pushing more voters to use their voice. A recent survey showed that Native American voters are less likely to be contacted by candidates, parties or civic organizations than other communities of color, despite their communities being deeply impacted by the structural inequalities that have been exacerbated in recent years.
However, Native communities across the country (and indeed, across the world) are rising up to demand recognition – and they are making powerful statements. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin has made efforts to have a Cherokee Delegate from Oklahoma seated in Congress, upholding a 200 year promise that has yet to be fulfilled. Through efforts by Rock the Native Vote, the League of Women Voters, and the popularity of the Hulu show “Reservation Dogs”, several events helped spur Native votes in Oklahoma and elsewhere. The 14% of Oklahoma voters who identify as Native American have made huge impacts in previous elections, and we anticipate that this trend will continue. Tribal leaders made a historic endorsement of Joy Hofmeister in her bid for Governor, highlighting strained relationships with incumbent Kevin Stitt and reminding political candidates of the power of the Native community voting bloc. With midterms behind us, it’s time to focus on our community and work for the support of all. Elected leaders can spearhead great initiatives, but they ultimately need the people’s support to bring these to fruition.
With Thanksgiving approaching, try and spend the time reflecting on the origins of the holiday and its people or plan a trip to a museum or cultural center. Oklahoma hosts a rich diversity of all communities, and many have fought hard to create such preservation centers. This November, we encourage you to take some time to learn about your Native neighbors and help to keep traditions alive by education and advocating for the respect of all in our state.
If you’d like to connect with our state’s Native American community, here are some ideas:
In Oklahoma City, right along the Oklahoma River outside of downtown, and the crossroads of several interstates is the newly open First Americans Museum. The building process took over two-decades, but it is now the largest single-building tribal center in the country, promoting awareness and education.
Oklahoma History Center: Located right outside the Oklahoma State Capitol, this Smithsonian affiliate hosts a variety of Native American artifacts.
Durbin Feeling Language Center: To preserve the language and encourage education, this brand-new immersion facility, near the Cherokee tribal headquarters is an educational experience where English becomes a foreign language.
Cherokee Heritage Center: (Currently closed) Located in Tahlequah over 44-acres, has replications of Cherokee life, historical markers and a Cherokee Family Research Center. Their website has information for other unique attractions while they plan for the future!
Chickasaw Cultural Center: Located in Sulphur, southeastern Oklahoma, the center is one of the largest tribal cultural centers in the United States and provides visitors with the opportunity to learn and embrace the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw people.
Gilcrease Museum: (Currently Closed) Located in Tulsa, Gilcrease hosts a large collection of Native American and Western Art.
Spiro Mounds: An archaeological site along the Arkansas River outside of Spiro, Oklahoma. Became a permanent settlement in AD 800 by a group of Caddoan speakers, the site today has 150 acres of 12 mounds and village area.